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Dr. Kalla Gervasio hails from Italy on her father’s side, and Athens and Thessaloniki on the side of her mother – a Greek-American from Wilmington, DE. Dr. Gervasio was born in Trenton, NJ and raised in Washington Crossing, PA, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. She is a young physician with a passion for medicine who specialized in neuro-ophthalmology and ophthalmic plastic surgery because she doesn’t like easy procedures and is intrigued by conditions that challenge her to find solutions and perform difficult surgeries.
She was raised in a family with a tradition in the medical field, since her father served as an anesthesiologist/pathologist and her mother worked as a radiation oncologist. Despite her parents cautioning her before her decision to pursue this taxing and difficult profession, she did not heed their advice. She fell in love with medicine and the scientific research, which was part of her daily life since childhood.
She began her studies in 2008 at Penn University, served as an intern for the Trenton Health Team, Inc. at the St. Francis Medical Center, and studied medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. After graduating, she served as a resident physician at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and was a fellow at the Wills Eye Hospital. She is now serving as a fellow at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis in the Department of Opthalmic Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.
At the age of 15, Dr. Gervasio lost her father to Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. It was then that she made up her mind to study medicine, inspired to specialize in oncology.
She treasures the fond memories of her father, which inspire her to continue living her life with passion and enthusiasm. She thinks back to how he helped her with her lab experiments in school, the tennis matches they would play, and the love that he showed her until fate decided to send him on his trip to eternity.
The National Herald: Dr. Gervasio, why did you choose to study ophthalmology?
Dr. Kalla Gervasio: I chose ophthalmology because it is the perfect combination of medicine and surgery. I liked the fact that I can treat my patients at the clinic as an eye doctor, while also performing surgery. I was especially drawn to neuro-opthalmology and ophthalmic plastic surgery because I am interested in the more complex procedures in this area, especially those related to oncology and orbital socket surgery.
TNH: What challenges do you face as a female ophthalmologist?
KG: Overall, we are heading in the right direction with regard to equality of the sexes in the field of ophthalmology and medicine in general, although there is still more to be done. For example, many studies have shown that there are fewer women writing scientific publications compared to men, as well as serving in multiple areas of surgical sub-specialties, including ophthalmology. It is speculated that many women who complete their medical studies may turn their attention to starting a family and thus delay publishing their work in medical journals or directly pursuing higher positions. One of the greatest challenges women in the medical field are facing is striking a healthy balance between family and professional life, as well as finding a job in an environment that is supportive regarding maternity leave, child care, etc. In spite of some of these challenges, we have made great strides and the representation of women in the medical profession continues to increase year by year. My grandmother always dreamed of becoming a doctor and was accepted into medical school, but her stepfather told her that she was not allowed to go because she was a woman. Compared to the situation back then, we have achieved major progress. I am proud that I was able to study medicine, considering the challenges that my grandmother had to face many years ago.
TNH: What do you love most about your job?
KG: I love the concept of lifelong learning in medicine. The medical field is constantly evolving and new studies come out every day. For someone to become a significant doctor, they need to keep up with the latest data, be willing to learn, and to adjust their practices as time goes by. I was always a ‘lifelong student’ and a nerd at heart! I like that this profession allows me to keep up with the latest techniques, ideas, and research developments so as to best care for my patients.
TNH: What is ophthalmic plastic surgery and what are the most common kinds of ophthalmic plastic surgeries?
KG: The field of ophthalmic plastic surgery focuses primarily on plastic and reconstructive surgery of the eyelids, the lacrimal (tear drain) system, and the orbital sockets, as well cosmetic surgery on the eyelids and eyebrows.
Some of the most common procedures performed by ophthalmic plastic surgeons are the repair of ptosis (drooping eyelids), upper and lower blepharoplasty (removal of excess skin and/or fat from the eyelids), the repair of malpositions of the eyelid that has turned inward or outward due to aging, and brow lifts. Additional procedures include repairs to lacerations of the eyelid due to trauma, reconstruction of eyelids after removal of skin cancers, and endoscopic orbital decompression for the treatment of thyroid eye disease.
TNH: What is neuro-ophthalmology and what diseases does it treat?
KG: The causes related to all the categories of neuro-ophthalmological diseases can be very serious and threaten either the central nervous system, or a patient’s overall health. Therefore, it is important for patients to visit the neuro-ophthalmologist immediately to treat the possible progression of the disease in time if they notice an inexplicable decline in their vision, diseases of the optic nerve and the optic pathway, transient vision loss, double-vision, sudden disorder of the eye alignment (sudden strabismus), sleepiness – damage to the mobility and stability of the eyes, disruptions to the diameter and mobility of the pupils and focusing system of the eyes, eyelid-related issues, lid retraction, and blepharospasm.
TNH: Which ophthalmological surgical procedure has given you the greatest sense of satisfaction or sparked the strongest emotions in your career? Tell us about some of the most difficult operations you have performed.
KG: My favorite surgical procedures are cases related to specialized surgical therapy for the decompression of the orbital socket in instances of thyroid eye disease. One of the most difficult operations that I have performed together with colleagues was the removal of a corneal dermoid that included the removal of a bone from the orbit of the eye to create room for the removal of a large cyst located in the rear of the eye.
TNH: We are living in the era of digital technology – which people of all ages use by necessity. How dangerous are computers to the eye? What can we do to combat or avoid their harmful effects?
KG: Computers are being used everywhere in today’s world of digital technology. As an ophthalmologist, I see many patients who are suffering from xerophthalmia, which can become worse due to overexposure to computer screens. Frequent lubrication with eye drops 4-6 times a day and lubricant eye ointment at night can help people avoid or treat xerophthalmia. Periodically switching out contact lenses for eyeglasses to give the eyes a rest while using the computer can also help alleviate dryness of the eyes.
TNH: How does pollution and climate change affect our eyes? Have new conditions come about as a result of these factors? What should people know to prevent them from occurring?
KG: Pollution can affect many disorders of the eye, like dry eye syndrome, allergic conjunctivitis, tearing in patients with obstructions in the nasolacrimal duct (blocked tear ducts), and many other conditions. In many cases, prevention involves frequent lubrication of the eyes for patients suffering from xerophthalmia, treatment of seasonal allergies with systematic medication or allergic conjunctivitis with special antiallergic eye drops, or a surgical procedure to correct blocked tear ducts for those suffering from excessive tearing.
TNH: How dangerous is the sun for the eyes? Do we always have to protect them?
KG: Protection from the sun is key. As an eye surgeon, I treat many patients suffering from various stages of skin cancer on their eyelids. In instances where skin cancer is more invasive or has been left untreated for too long, patients require more complex reconstruction of the eyelid. Sunscreen and sunglasses can help prevent skin cancer of the face and eyelids. Prolonged exposure to the sun can also affect other parts of the eye. Excessive solar keratitis can cause permanent damage to the retina (a condition called solar retinopathy) and overexposure to ultraviolet light over a long period of time can also accelerate the onset of cataracts in certain instances.
TNH: Considering that the use of digital media is steadily increasing among adolescents today, what would you recommend they do to protect their vision?
KG: The increased use of digital media has been linked to the accelerated development of myopia or childhood myopia. I would advise teenagers to get their eyes checked regularly to ensure that they are wearing the correct glasses or have the appropriate contact lens prescription, and to keep their eyes lubricated using eye drops to avoid developing xerophthalmia due to the frequent use of digital media.
TNH: What do you enjoy most in life?
KG: I always enjoyed playing tennis and basketball, as well as watching sports in Philadelphia. I am a big Philadelphia Seventy-Sixers fan and I used to watch the games with my father when I was a little girl. My parents and I would also watch all the major tennis tournaments together – especially the US Open. In addition, I enjoy music, trips, and classical Greek and Roman history. I studied the classics in college.
TNH: What are your goals for the future?
KG: In the future, I want to work at an academic institution where I can practice both neuro-ophthalmology and ophthalmic plastic surgery with a special emphasis on orbital diaphragm surgery and oncology. I hope to be in a position to teach and contribute to research in my field.
TNH: What is your advice for young women who want to become eye doctors?
KG: Never give up and never let anyone cause you to doubt yourselves as women in the medical field. Studying medicine is challenging and there will be many times when you may feel like you are not good enough. Don’t let this affect you! Find a support network with mentors and friends wherever you go so that through their encouragement they can inspire you to pursue your goals and put your best foot forward.
NEW YORK – The Hellenic-American Cultural Foundation (HACF) presents Professor Constantinos Daskalakis: ‘When will machines be truly intelligent?’ on Wednesday, October 12, 7 PM, at Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Music Center, 129 West 67th Street in Manhattan.
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